“My job is to see the really bad days coming.”
Brian D’Agostino joined San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) in 2009 as its first meteorologist. Today, he helps SDG&E administer the first weather utility network of its kind anywhere in the world.
Connected via wireless networks, the utility company’s 200 (and growing) weather stations across the region capture wind, temperature, and humidity data. These stations update every 10 minutes, but updates are now available every 30 seconds. It’s a lot of information, and it’s information that SDG&E is quick to share. Every day, 200 gigabytes of data is sent to a super computer center for any researcher in the world to access. Meanwhile, the SDG&E Weather Awareness System consolidates sensor data into a user-friendly, one-stop online map and dashboard.
This is only the beginning of how SDG&E’s network is connecting data, people, and technology to anticipate trends and keep people safe. Dedicated to collaboration, the team is also working with UCSD to put sensors in the water, with fire fighters in a fire science and innovation lab, and with the local community to keep people informed, engaged, and prepared during COVID-19.
Collaborating and collecting data to understand winds and risk
In California, the Santa Ana winds are a critical bellwether for fire risk. Knowing this, D’Agostino and his team initially placed remote weather stations within mountain passes and canyons to detect them—but picked up no unusually strong gusts.
Former firefighters suggested moving the sensors to specific slopes. The resulting measurements were, in D’Agostino’s words, “crazy windy.”
“Like in white water rafting, where there’s a rock and you get a downslope wave, there was wind coming in from the desert, hitting mountain peaks and forming rapids. Now we understand where the rapids are,” he said.
The weather stations now pick up gusts of up to100 mph. SDG&E uses this information to make its infrastructure more resilient and supplement its models for extreme weather and fire forecasting.
The power of a predictive index
A Category 5 hurricane demands much different preparation tactics than a Category 1. The same nuances—and need for tracking—hold true with wildfires.
“If we have a one-in-a-hundred-year event or 90-120 mph winds in the back country, we have to see that coming and prepare,” he said.
D’Agostino’s team worked with firefighters and UCLA to develop the Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index, which categorizes Santa Ana winds on a similar rating scale. It uses data like the moisture in dead and live fuels, the greenness of annual grasses, atmospheric moisture, and wind speed to create a six-day forecast, which is then compared to climatological and historic fire data to establish an index rating.
“It fills a huge gap,” he said.” Today, the index is in use at several fire departments. “It’s really gone mainstream.”
Connecting communities during COVID-19
The stakes are always high and the challenges intense during California wildfire season—which is now year-round, according to D’Agostino. During a global pandemic, this is even more so. How do you keep people informed on the best tips to say safe in an environment of lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and social distancing?
SDG&E developed a virtual model at its emergency operations center and reimagined community outreach for subjects from storm safety to keeping cool during rising temperatures. (Dealing with heat is more relevant than ever as San Diego Communities hit a record-breaking 110 degrees in early September, as did Los Angeles County. Woodland Hills reached 121 degrees, the hottest temperature ever recorded at an official weather station in the county.) Part of pivoting procedures, in-person townhalls became webinars, and community resource centers launched “drive-through wildfire safety fairs” that participants could experience from the protection of their own vehicles.
“We’ve been able to communicate with so many more customers,” D’Agostino explained. “At a normal town hall, if we got 20 people, we’d be thrilled. Today, we’ve had 200 people at our webinars alone.”
Learn more about the San Diego Gas & Electric weather network at https://sdgeweather.com/.
Watch the video featuring Brian D'Agostino and the SDG&E Wildfire Detection Program here: